Archive for December, 2006

Mid-Course Corrections with Comedy and Humor

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

I spoke to a group this week and planned on using some humor.  The group’s reputation was that they were not receptive to humor.  People told me that speakers would try humor for this group and it always was a dud.  A comatose audience.

I was scheduled to speak in the last half of the meeting.  As I usually do at events, I sat with pen in hand jotting down notes that could be used for observational humor.  Opening my short talk with four pieces of observational humor seemed like a good idea, since that’s what I normally do, even though I expected the laughter to be light.

When the time arrived for the MC to introduced me, I took my place at the front of the room.  My first two lines were a joke and a topper (a joke followed by a related joke which gets a bigger response because of the set-up provided by the first joke.  Professional comics often structure their material as joke/topper/topper, each funnier line riding on the coat tails of the preceding line and thus getting a larger laugh).  I wasn’t expecting much from the first joke, it was really serving as a set-up for the topper line which followed.  And to my great surprise they laughed!  Not a small laugh, a good laugh.  And the line wasn’t supposed to be THAT funny.  The laughter actually shocked me.  I immediately knew that ALL of my lines would be funny.  And they were.  Great, solid laughter.

An unresponsive group?  Absolutely not.  They were a very receptive group and they enjoyed humor.  Apparently they previously had been treated to a parade of “humorous” speakers who simply weren’t funny and the audience had the good judgment NOT to laugh!  And then they were tagged with a reputation they didn’t deserve.  I needed to make a mid-course correction in my attitude and expectations.

I remember a regular performer at a Montgomery, Alabama comedy club where I often performed on Open-Mike Nights in the early 1980s.  One night, after a bad set, the comic confided in me:  “The audience bombed!”  Not exactly.  Although he was normally funny…on that night, HE bombed.  Sometimes we’re too fast to blame the audience.  We’ll never be able to make mid-course corrections unless we are in touch with what’s really happening.

As a humor speaker, making mid-course corrections while “on your feet” in front of the audience, is absolutely essential.  The correction I had to make this week was to change my expectation of the audience.  I wasn’t expecting much.  And early feedback as I began my program told me to expect a lot.  If I had continued to expect less, the principle of self-fulfilling prophesy may have come into play.  I may have started trying too hard to be funny.  I may have started to beg for laughs.  I may have had the attitude of challenging them to laugh, of making them laugh.  Fortunately, my experience immediately told me that they were going to be great.  And my new expectation gave me a positive delivery and connection with the audience.

There were other times when I had to make mid-course adjustments in my presentations.  Sometimes your program may not be working.  Maybe the audience has had too much to drink.  Maybe your program interrupted the dancing on New Years Eve.  Maybe the audience didn’t want to be there, but were forced to be there, like prisoners in a penitentiary.  Maybe earlier programs cut into your time and the audience was watching the clock wondering if you were going to cut into their next break.  Maybe the sound system was so bad that the audience members in the back of the room couldn’t hear you.  Maybe the spotlight was fixed and couldn’t light the portion of the stage where the microphone with the short cord was stationed.  Maybe the table centerpieces were so tall that it was like 50 people standing in the middle of the room, blocking the view of many in the audience.  Maybe the room was arranged with the first row of seats set 70 feet away from the speaking platform.  Maybe you only had two hours sleep and weren’t at your sharpest.  Maybe you had a bad case of the flu.  Maybe you were speaking on a riverboat while standing on the doors which covered the diesel engine compartment which was totally drowning you out.  Maybe your only lighting was yellow bug-lights (on the riverboat) and you looked like a cast member from Night Of The Living Dead.  Well…enough of my real-life speaking and performing situations.

The thing to remember is that less-than-optimal conditions require coping strategies to deal with the challenges.  You can’t just plod along with the same style, the same content, the same mental attitude.  You can’t be on auto-pilot.  When you’ve had a signal that something isn’t quite right, an adjustment is absolutely needed.  Otherwise not-quite-right will turn into absolutely-horrible.

You may need to step off the platform and walk into the audience so they can hear or see you.  You may need to depart from your prepared remarks and enter into a more casual question-and-answer session to connect with the audience.  You may need to shorten your talk.  You may need more humor.  You may need less humor.  You may need more visual humor.  You may need to deliver with more energy.  You may need to focus your eye contact.  You may need to change your expectations.  You may need to quickly and politely end your talk, pack your things, and leave with a smile on your face.

Always keep your radar tuned.  Analyze the feedback you receive.  Be realistic.  It could be the audience.  It could be you.  Make adjustments.  The more you do it, the better you’ll become at mid-course corrections.  The more professional you’ll appear to the audience.  The more both you AND the audience will enjoy the experience.  The more you will make a difference in the lives of other people.

Creative Humor Writing — Favorite Things Limericks

Friday, December 22nd, 2006

Happy Holidays!

Tis the season to be jolly.

The creative humor writing challenge for the December contest was to write a Limerick about your Favorite Things. 

Here are the top Favorite-Thing Limericks submissions.  Enjoy!



First “Impression”

I love being my spouse’s Mister
Our first date, I couldn’t resist her
It’s mostly a blur
But I know for sure
The greatest part was when I kissed her!!

S Frank Stringham, Las Vegas, NV


Plastic Joy

There once was a girl with a doll
That doll could pee-pee and then bawl
It made me feel glad
To know that her dad
GI Joe was just 12-inches tall!

Kathy Carlton Willis, Burlington, KY

HONORABLE MENTION (in random order)

Sweet smoke
You may think it mediocre
I did love being a smoker
I had to submit
And finally quit
Or end up an early croaker.

Story Time
Reading is a joy that’s hot
On finding a nice quiet spot
The story evolves
the plot unfolds
until the ending that’s soon forgot.

A Few Words 
Strive to give the perfect speech
Grasping every soul in reach.
Ignite the passion
In such a fashion
That enhances what you preach. 

Competition is an obsession
Chasing wins with so much aggression
The sweet caress
Of a winner’s success
Can erase a loser’s depression.

This must be a favourite thing
Tying words in a humorous string
First there’s a notion
Causing emotion 
Until laughter it soon does bring.

Lazy Bones
Oh for a moment of leisure
Where resting is such a treasure
Without being idle
I’m homicidal
And really do need the pleasure.

I love a home that’s clean and breezy
One that’s dirty feels so sleazy
So It’s a bit Crazy
That I am so Lazy
Instead of cleaning I take it easy.

Balancing Act
They say life is great with a pet
Or playing some sports till you sweat
But I have the gall
To tell all y’all
The best thing is having no debt!!
Bread and Bettor
You may think that I am a rookie
When I’d rather not have a cookie
The dough on my mind
Is really the kind
That I can collect from my bookie.

Wedded Blister
My wedding day came with great force
And shortly, a bitter divorce
But now that I’m free
My friends can all see
I haven’t a bit of remorse.

Go And Thin No More
Our romance is fervently quickening
Though others may say that it’s “sickening”
I “hear” with a lisp
It’s clear and it’s crisp
Our love life is really just “th’ickening.”

Little Blessing
It doesn’t take much to be happy
I just look at her there, in her nappy
Then once in a while
She gives me a smile
I’m so blessed to be her Pappy.

The Perfect Place
Alone in the Australian Outback
Freedom is just down the track
The bush and it’s smells
Revitalise brain cells
With a harmony that Cities do lack.

My life’s most wonderful pleasures
Are way beyond standard measures 
They are souvenirs
Of the passing years
Kept in a box of secret Treasures

Go With The Urge
Nothing’s better than a big laugh
Bringing joy at time and a half
It surpasses a smile
Makes life worthwhile
Even if all think you are daft.

I don’t want wine, women and song,
I’m sick of being strung along
So for my leisure
To give me pleasure
I watch DVD’s all day long

Trouble and Strife
Ever since I first met my Wife
All so often I’m deep in strife.
Yet come what may
I’ve got to say
She’s the best thing in all of my life.

Life’s Pursuit
Life is full of twists and turns
Facing all of fates concerns.
But once on top
You must not stop
For joy is in what one learns

And finally a fun “favorite thing” poem not in limerick form:

Dinner Music
Meatloaf makes me happy
The music not the meal
I think he’s rare
And quite well done
For many years
My number one
Dashboard Lights
Bat Out of Hell
I sing them loud
though not very well
Friends and family
find it funny
That Meatloaf is
My lifetime honey

Becoming A Better Speaker by Studying Professional Performers

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

World Dance Championship — Learning From The Pros

I attended the World Salsa Competition at the South Point Hotel and Casino this past weekend.  I was watching the noon news telecast on a local TV channel and discovered that the event was kicking off later that evening just four miles from my house.  It’s great living in Las Vegas!

The competition featured salsa, mambo, cha-cha-cha, tango, high-energy style Latin dance.  What great fun to mix and mingle with the dancers in the hallway.  There were two hundred competitors from 28 countries.  The competition finals will tentatively be aired on ESPN in March, 2007.

As usual, I’m always on the lookout for lessons-learned from the pros and how we can apply them to our speaking and use of humor.  The competition was rich with examples.  I’ll share seven of them:

Having Fun.  The best dancers looked like they were having fun.  Some of the less-experienced dancers, while still greatly talented, were looking a bit stressed out as they did their choreography.  Going through the moves with a serious look of concentration definitely detracted from the entertainment value of the routine.  And so it is when we speak from the platform.  We MUST look like we’re enjoying what we’re doing!  I remember when I was enrolled in jazz dance classes fifteen years ago.  The instruction was so much more than just the dance steps.  The instructor kept drilling into our heads the importance of having fun and smiling while we went through the steps.

Connection With the Audience.  The best dancers had a connection with the viewing audience.  That helped them feed off the energy and give it back to the audience.  The dancers who had not mastered that skill were dancing in their own bubble, seemingly unaware of the environment outside the dance floor.  It’s the same thing when speaking.  It’s never a monologue.  You’re always in a dialogue when you’re speaking, even when you’re the only one saying words.  The other part of the “conversation” comes from the energy and feedback the audience is sending to you.  If you fail to tune in to that you’ll be missing a huge part of the connection with the audience.

Preparation and Excellence.  Without question the best dancers were exceptionally well prepared.  Watching pros perform always motivates me to work harder at becoming a great speaker.  Excellence is a result of preparation and hard work.

Warming Up.  We arrived 90 minutes before the evening’s event began.  Although the dancers were not allowed to practice on the competition dance floor, a few of them did step onto the floor to get the feel of the dance surface.  And out in the hallway, which served as their Green Room for the preliminary event I was watching, they were stretching and focusing on the task to come.  They were getting ready for the main event.  So too, speakers need to warm up, physically, mentally and vocally, before taking the platform.  Find a private place to walk, move, hum, sing, swing your arms.  Do whatever warm-ups you need to ensure you hit the plaform running.  If you don’t warm-up before you take the stage, you’ll warm-up in front of the audience.  A dancer, an Olympic athlete, a professional basketball player, an opera singer would never do that.  Neither should you.

Expect the Unexpected.  One of the dance teams made their entrance, took their starting pose, and to their surprise, their music did not start playing.  They kept their cool.  They held their pose for about 30 seconds longer than they had planned.  The music started.  They were great.  They didn’t let the stage wait draw them down.  Another dancer was dealing with an article of clothing that was slipping out of pace and twice during the routine tugged at it bring it back to where it belonged.  She kept smilling and never missed a step.  The unexpected will also happen while you’re speaking.  Be prepared for it.  Never get flustered.  You’ll win the audience when you handle an expected situation with class.

High Energy.  You couldn’t help but enjoy the dance choreography.  The high energy drew you in, especially the spins and fast precision footwork.  Although slower dance styles have their appeal and grace, you can’t help being drawn to the energy of the Latin dance numbers.  The choreography was almost always arranged with variety.  One pair of dancers stood out during the free-style dancing.  Their quick footwork was amazing.  When they did their choreographed number they didn’t do any of their really fast steps until about a third of the way into their routine.  By contrast to what preceded it, the fast steps really stood out and drew a big ovation from the crowd.  When we prepare a speech we’re also looking for that variety.  Touch several emotions.  Get them laughing, bring a tear to the eye, get them laughing again, get them sitting on the edge of their seats wondering what comes next, let them relax.  It’s not what you do that is the key, it’s how you change what you do that adds the spice.

Look Like a Pro.  They were dressed like pro dancers and most had stage makeup.  Dress up for your talks to fit the situation.  Part of the reason for doing that is to create an image for the audience.  And part of the reason is to put you in the performing/speaking mindset.  Sometimes the right suit or the perfect pair of shoes is like putting on your super-hero uniform and it transforms you into the speaking mode that will lift the quality of your program.   I remember an Italian suit that did that for me.  And a pair of shoes I bought in Beverly Hills.  And a tie I first wore to a performance in a private home party with a number of famous Hollywood celebrities.  In my subsequent speaking and performing engagements, putting on a particular item of clothing made me feel ready to take the stage.

Holiday Humor

Friday, December 15th, 2006

 I received the MidMonth Mirth Memo from Allen Klein today.  It’s an excellent, quick and easy-to-read humor resource and it’s free.  Send an email to This month he shares The Five Things I Learned from Santa Claus.  I added fifteen more.  Thanks Allen for brightening my day.

Twenty Things I Learned from Santa Claus

1.  Dress in colorful clothing.
2.  Lose the girdle.
3.  See the world.
4.  Let others do the heavy lifting.
5.  Keep working, if only part time.
6.  You can look vibrant on a diet of cookies and milk.
7.  Enjoy the company of children.
8.  Be flattered when people impersonate you.
9.  Give more than you receive.
10. You don’t need GPS when tracked by NORAD.
11. Treat all people nicely.
12. Don’t let kids see you kissing their mom.
13. Spread peace and goodwill.
14. Wear a suit that repels soot.
15. Hire the social outcast.
16. Avoid running over grandmothers.
17. Appreciate a spouse who doesn’t mind buisness trips.
18. Admire people who take long trips without luggage.
19. Don’t visit a library wearing bells on your shoes.
20. Laugh frequently and loudly.

Excellence in Performance — Public Speaking

Thursday, December 14th, 2006

Watching a variety of performance arts provides great inspiration for excellence in anything you might do.  It especially relates to excellence in public speaking.  Check out this choreographed juggling routine by Chris Bliss.  As a speaker and a humorist, sometimes I find it tempting to just “wing it” (be in the moment and go with the flow).  Many of us fall into that trap occasionally, out of convenience or habit. 

Although being spontaneous does have its positive side, the truth is that there is really no substitute for solid preparation.  As you watch Chris Bliss you can be sure that he isn’t just making it up as he goes.  Hundreds of hours (probably thousands) and many dropped balls went into preparation for this display of perfection.  What could you do differently, or better, if you had more preparation?  If you were totally prepared?  If you were over-prepared?  That would allow you to be truly in the moment and perform at your very best. 

Another juggler, Jason Garfield, repeated the Chris Bliss routine with five balls instead of three.  It was shot in a gym and the production quality is not great, but the skill level is clearly amazing.  Although it appears more difficult to use five balls instead of three, and the Wow-Factor is larger, the entertainment value isn’t necessarily higher.  The clean lines of thee balls makes the art stand out.  In many art forms the expression “less is more” does apply.  For example, in the world of magic the classic Chinese Linking Rings is traditionally performed with five or seven rings.  But there are some very powerful routines choreographed with just three rings and even two rings which by most measures are even more powerful performance pieces for an audience.  The simplicity and clean elements of a less complex performance often results in a higher quality entertainment value.

Lessons learned.  Excellence is achieved with preparation and not by accident.  And an artfully presented routine or speech can showcase simplicity (or something that gives the illusion of simplicity) with a level of excellence that makes it truly stand out.

Opening a Speech with Humor

Thursday, December 7th, 2006

The Humor Power Tips December Ezine features a 1280 word article on tips from Patricia Fripp’s Speaking and Presentation Skills School, as they relate to presenting humor.  One of the 18 tips was “Never Open A Speech With a Joke!”

Great suggestion.  Everything in a speech should have a point and purpose.  A joke, just for the laughs, is out of place in a formal speech. Yes, it’s great to open with humor, but do it with a humorous story that has a payoff which ties into the theme of your talk. 

In discussing this further with Fripp, I shared with her that I often open with custom-written observational humor, usually designed around things which happened or were spoken from the platform just before I began my talk.  In essence, I do open with a joke.  I suspected that this was not what she meant by “don’t open with a joke.”  Fripp replied, “Never open with a joke that belongs to the world.  A custom written bit by a humorist that is original is different than a speaker telling old jokes.  Old jokes personalized might work later in the presentation, although I would not really endorse it.”

I agree completely. Excellent advice.  My approach is to avoid jokes that I’ve heard somewhere else.  I’ve found that when starting out, there is a tendency to use more “borrowed material” to round out a speech.  But with more experience, those jokes and stories from the public domain are replaced with original humor lines and stories from your own experience.  Much more effective.  I still occasionally use four stories, which have been in my repertoire for more than 15 years, which were told to me by someone else.  The last after-dinner talk I presented did not include any of the four stories.  I will still occasionally use them when they fit well into a talk, bit I’ve made the decision that when I hear another speaker use one of these four stories, it gets permanently dropped from my list of speech vignettes.

When you’re using a joke or a story, the questions are:  Did someone else create the story?  Did I hear someone else tell it?  Did I read it somewhere?  Did I find it on the internet?  Have I read it or heard it more than once?

The questions are not:  Do I think the story or joke is great?  Do I deliver it well?  Does the audience laugh when I tell the story?  Those are poor measures for selecting a story which will standout in a professionally delivered talk.  Audiences are polite and will laugh even when they’ve heard a story before.  But if you open with an old joke that has “been around,” it will give your whole talk the flavor of old material.  You want your talk to appear fresh and original.

Is it dangerous to use newly created humor?  After all, if you haven’t tested the material, can you be sure that it will be funny?  The answer is, “Not always.”  My advice is to never open a talk with untested humor unless you’re a professional humor person who has been doing this for awhile.  After doing this for nearly 30 years, when it comes to judging whether or not something is funny, I’m right about 90 percent of the time.  My choice, when uncertain about the quality of a story, is to test it in the middle of a talk, not to use it as an opener.  I also break in new material when I give speeches to my Toastmasters Club, which is essentially a laboratory environment where you can experiment without major negative consequences. 

Another measure of the quality of new humor is that highly-tailored lines will always score higher when presented to the audience for which the lines were written.  On a scale of one-to-ten, if I write an observational line and deliver it in-the-moment as a spontaneous piece of humor, it has a good chance of being getting a response of 8 to 10.  A customized observational line which gets a response of 9 will get a 7 when told to someone later who wasn’t there.  It just isn’t as funny when it’s not fresh.  That’s why I will often make the decision to use a fresh and untested line to open a talk even though I know that it’s not a universally-funny line.  I know that the power of the customized, fresh line will give it the extra kick that it needs.  Practice your skills and judgment in using this type of humor in a safe environment, like a Toastmasters meeting, until you have become a good judge of what is and is not funny.

Are there common domain stories which people love to hear again?  Most certainly.  But it’s still better not to open with that type of story and instead place it later in the talk.  And better yet, avoid that kind of story.  Leave those stories to the lesser-skilled speakers.  Tell your own stories that people will want to hear again and again.  You’ll find that they’ll bring you back for repeat engagements just because they want to hear YOUR signature stories.  That’s the path to success.

Presentation Skills Creativity — Combining Several Arts

Sunday, December 3rd, 2006

We can be inspired by the excellence and creativity of others.  Whether we’re watching gymnastics, skating, the olympics, a dance or musical performance or some other form of sport or performance art, the high level of perfection can inspire us to lift our own performance to new levels.  Of special interest to me is how people combine the thinking from two or more fields to create something new and exceptional.

 Here’s a link to a really fun and interesting video featuring mime Jerome Murat.  I was pointed to the video by my good friend and conversation expert Loren Ekroth.  Although the opening of the video is in the French language, 95 percent of the video is mime (no spoken words).  What’s really interesting is how the artist combines the art of mime with the art of magic, puppetry and choreography.  Those of you who are magicians will recognize some standard magic techniques used to produce the amazing illusion you’ll see on the video.  Just when you think the video is over, keep watching.  It gets even more amazing.

Just as humor is normally a combination of two previously unrelated things; so too are many other forms of creativity.  Look for opportunities to combine elements from two or more areas in which you have expertise.  You never know what the result will be. 

You’ll enjoy the video!

Humor Skills — Creative Writing — The Favorite Thing Limerick

Friday, December 1st, 2006

It’s time to boost your humor skills again.  The December Humor Power Tips contest!   Our Pet Peeve Limerick Contest two months ago was so popular that we’re featuring another limerick contest again this month.

The Favorite Thing Limerick Contest is the flip side of our October contest when you created humor based on things that irritated you.  This month we’ll look at the things you like.  The things you love.  The things that make you feel good. 

Create a limerick or two.  Or a dozen.  For an extra (optional) challenge, give each limerick a title.  And submit your best ones to by Friday, December 15, 2006.  We’ll recognize the best limericks by the end of the month.  Good luck.  Good writing.  Have fun!

Here’s a sample to get you started:

Sometimes I find it funny,
That people so love their money.
‘Cause the source of strife
If gone from my life
Is the gentle touch of my honey.

The winner of our October limerick contest, S Frank Stringham (a brilliantly funny and talented performer who was featured on the opening show of America’s Got Talent), has written a great blog post on How To Write an Award-Winning  Limerick.  Check it out.